With tear filled eyes, my daughter dumps on us about how she has been ostracized from her “friend group.” The tears and pain are real, which is heartbreaking for any parent to see. The advice we gave is equally familiar to any parent:
“Develop a tough skin,” “choose your friends wisely,” “see people for who they are,” “not everyone has your best interest at heart,” “don’t base your friendships or life on if one person likes you or not,” “your job is not to make people like you, not everyone will” and “do stand up for what you believe in.” All of these logical parental points were woven well into our conversation as we talked her off the proverbial ledge. Which is met with a short and blunt tear-filled, “You don’t understand!”
The truth is, I do understand and so does my wife. Most people have experienced meanness. Many have committed meanness. In today’s day and age, it is worse because of social media. Instead of being treated poorly only at school, we can’t escape the viciousness because social media lets others attack 24/7 in very real and at times in subtle ways. The selfies sent from the party you were left off the “guest list,” to being deleted from “the” group chat. This is the difference between yesterday and today’s meanness. It is so easy to be mean now. It’s shockingly common to discover that your child is a victim now.
The Workplace Stops the Meanness. Or Does It?
The meanness and cattiness that is formed and stormed as an adolescent is just a dress rehearsal for the workplace. Regardless of where you sit on the org chart, you can still be the target of meanness from the CEO to the janitor. People who have dealt with this behavior in middle school can become targets at work too. History can repeat itself, or at a minimum the same emotions flood right back in as if we were still sitting in that all in one desk chair. The adult can be tossed right back to that dark place, as if they never left it.
I am told horror stories of how people are mistreated at work across the globe by colleagues, bosses, and at times, customers. All companies have poor behaving people; some are just worse than others about controlling it. I call those employers toxic provocateurs.
I once facilitated an intervention where two coworkers who worked with each other for over fifteen years. Their desks faced each other head on. For most of those years these two people did not verbally communicate with each other. That would constitute mean in my book. Communication was done only through other people or by email. I felt the tension not only with them, but with the entire team. The pain from the “fight” was palpable for all involved.
Could you imagine for fifteen years you did not speak to someone who sat right in front of you? As I peeled back the onion, we come to find out that the two individuals could not remember why they were upset with each other in the first place. No recollection. Fifteen years passed with ill will and no olive branch was ever extended. Afterwards they shook hands, called a truce, and accepted the fact that they just had different personalities. Time (years), creativity, and productivity all wasted.
Unnecessary drama where people I care about are mean to each other drives me bonkers. I find myself asking, “Why can’t people lay down their meanness and support each other?” We are adults, we know when we are behaving like asses. Are we so self-absorbed that we have forgotten how the Golden Rule works? Self-preoccupation along with a hint of meanness are never good long-term strategies for success. Words like humility and self-awareness come to mind that can quickly reconcile even the slightest hint of a work tiff.
We need to help our kids learn to handle this landscape and to be better people than what is exhibited by others. Never give up the power to be yourself to some snot-nosed kid, coworker, or boss. They have not earned that right to treat you poorly.
We don’t need a policy on how to act. As fully developed adults, we know how to act. Heck, some would counter we learned that in kindergarten, like the Robert Fulghum book tells us. Just be nice. How hard can it be?
Some people are never going to be good people, and it’s important our kids learn this and steer clear of them. If they don’t, we end up raising those kids who stay in less than desirable relationships at home and at work because they’re trying to change a shitty person into a good one. It’s their job to be consistently kind while not being a pushover. But it’s not our kid’s job to save their mean schoolmates from their nasty selves.
As a Dad, my wife and I are teaching our kids to navigate this stuff so they themselves can grow into kind, loving adults despite others who may not be subscribers to kindness. You don’t need some expert to tell you what to say to your kids. Teach, model and show them what the best leaders do. They are empathetic, great listeners, hold people accountable and build up, instead of tearing people down. I look into the mirror all the time to see if I am living up to that standard of parenting. This is what I am teaching my kids which seems to be working. I pray it sticks for all parties involved.
It may be very easy to be mean. But I’d just ask that we give a try to act civil toward each other, even when we disagree.
I give my daughter credit. She would rather be by herself than be mistreated by someone else who purports to be a friend. I love this about her, even though it can be a bumpy road some days. In the long run she will be a much happier person not trapped by someone else’s desire of how they think she should be and act.
The majority of my kids’ friends are fantastic. But it only takes a mean one to kill the mojo. The seas have calmed. My daughter’s drama has thankfully passed and the friends have rekindled. Knowing how the teenage world works the drama will return in person and online. And when it does, she will be ready and equipped to deal with it. It is my hope with any luck that nasty kids will outgrow their meanness as they progress through life and become wonderful adults. If that happens, the world will be a better place for the next generation.
I will leave us parents with one suggestion. Help your child grow up to be a kind and humble person while they’re still in middle school — preferably earlier — and HR leaders all over the world will thank you later.
Onward and Up!